Bryan Applewhite compared Nebraska’s running back competition this fall to a horse race between Triple Crown winners, or a 1990s slam dunk contest.
In simpler terms, he wants his running backs constantly trying to outdo one another. A windmill dunk or between-the-legs slam may translate to breaking tackles, making defenders miss or picking up a blitz.
To this point, he’s been impressed with what he’s seen.
“It’s been unbelievable. Iron sharpens iron, so one man makes another man stronger,” Applewhite said at Thursday’s press conference. “And they’ve been holding each other accountable and competing with each other at the same time, which, it’s been good, it’s been really good.”
Applewhite said that he’s yet to find a top running back, which is a “huge deal” to him. However, he’s happy with the fact that the competition is so tight and wants it to be a tough decision in the end.
The Huskers have struggled to find a go-to back for the past few years. In both 2020 and 2021, quarterback Adrian Martinez was the leader when it came to the ground game, in attempts, yards and touchdowns.
Rahmir Johnson ended up as the leading running back for most of the year, securing the starting spot down the stretch of the season. He totaled 495 yards and four touchdowns on 112 rushes, along with 197 receiving yards and two touchdown catches.
Johnson stands out in the room for his receiving skills. Fellow running back Gabe Ervin Jr. praised him for that aspect of his game.
“He can get out in open space, he can catch balls out of the backfield. He’s really good out in space and he uses his hands well,” Ervin said. “Rahmir’s going to be a good back for us in the passing game and also the running game.”
Johnson and the rest of the running back room also collected praise on Thursday for their involvement with special teams. Special teams coordinator Bill Busch said he has a lot of respect for Johnson, and the room as a whole has been “outstanding.”
Versatility seems to be a tenet of what Nebraska is looking for at the running back spot. Applewhite said offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will use certain running backs in certain packages and situations, but he’d like all of them to be well-rounded players.
“I’m trying to develop them all, where we are a first down, second down and third down running back,” he said. “… I expect all of them be able to handle every situation.”
Outside of Johnson, backs like Anthony Grant, Jaquez Yant and Ervin seem to be some of the top candidates for playing time in the fall. Grant is the new face among those three, as he transferred in from New Mexico Military Institute. There, he was the NJCAA Male Student-Athlete of the Year and an All-American.
Yant and Ervin are the top returning backs from last year’s roster. Yant played in six games, recording 294 rushing yards and a touchdown on 6.3 yards per carry, but only had two games where he received more than six carries. Ervin’s 2021 numbers stand out much less, but he was a key running back to start the year before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game.
Now, he’s back and ready to keep competing for carries.
“I’m 100%, ready to go,” he said. “I’m just trying to get mentally and physically better on the field, you know, and off the field in the film room.”
The running backs have had to adjust to a new position coach, with Applewhite in his first season at Nebraska, and Ervin has felt comfortable doing so. He said he’s built a good relationship with Applewhite and has full trust in this staff.
“The biggest difference is that we’re trying to win. Coach Whipple is like putting this offense together, putting this offensive scheme in a position to score touchdowns,” Ervin said. “This offensive staff is different, night and day.”
The first chance to prove that difference is still a few weeks out, and there are many decisions to be made before then. Applewhite, a horse racing fan, said near the end of his availability that he picks winning horses based on which is the “cutest.” The criteria for a top running back is much different.
“I told them today, who shows me who wants it every day? Who’s gonna be the most consistent every day? And who’s gonna be the most physical every day? And they are striving towards that,” he said. “Let me tell you that they are striving towards that.”